The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

The Islamic Defenders Front: The Face of Indonesia’s Far-Right Islamism

This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?

Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “political jihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.

 

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Habib Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.

As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).

While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).

Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?

Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”

Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).

For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).

The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).

President Joko Widodo campaigned in Banjarmasin Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan on March 27, 2019. Photo: Iman Satria

What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?

Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by Prabowo Subianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).

In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).

While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).

Protester waving Indonesian flag and Habib Rizieq Shihab picture during President Election Protest in front of Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 24, 2020.

The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”

The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”

This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).

At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?

Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).

This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).

The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


References

— (2020). “Rizieq Shihab, back in Indonesia, calls for ‘moral revolution’.” FR24 News. December 2, 2020. https://www.fr24news.com/a/2020/12/rizieq-shihab-back-in-indonesia-calls-for-moral-revolution.html (accessed on April 30, 2021).

— (2021). “The moment when the ex-head of FPI walked out but could not leave the room at Bareskrim.” detikNews. March 19, 2021. https://news.detik.com/berita/d-5500041/momen-eks-ketum-fpi-walkout-tapi-tak-bisa-keluar-ruangan-di-bareskrim (accessed on April 30, 2021).

Adiwilaga, Rendy; Mustabsyirotul, Mustofa, U. and Ridha, Rahman, R. (2019). “Quo Vadis Islamic Populism? An Electoral Strategy.” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies. 13(4), 432–453. 

Amal, K. M. (2020). “Islamic Populism in Southeast Asia: An Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Perspective.” Journal of Critical Reviews. 7(5). 

Budiari, Indra. (2018). “After FPI tipoff, police raid alleged gay sex party, arrest 13.” The Jakarta Post. November 28, 2018. https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/11/28/after-fpi-tipoff-police-raid-alleged-gay-sex-party-arrest-13.html (accessed on April 29, 2021).

Chalmers, Ian. (2019). “A temple to populist nationalism.” Inside Indonesia. April 29, 2019. https://www.insideindonesia.org/a-temple-to-populist-nationalism (accessed on April 29, 2021).

de Haan, Jarryd. (2020). “Saudi Strategies for Religious Influence and Soft Power in Indonesia.” Future Directions International. July 2, 2020. https://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/saudi-strategies-for-religious-influence-and-soft-power-in-indonesia/ (accessed on April 30, 2021).

Fealy, Greg. (2018). “Bigger than Ahok: explaining the 2 December mass rally.” Indonesia at Melbourne. September 26, 2018. http://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/bigger-than-ahok-explaining-jakartas-2-december-mass-rally/ (accessed on April 30, 2021).

Fossati, O. Diego & Mietzner, Marcus. (2019). “Analyzing Indonesia’s Populist Electorate.” Asian Survey. 59(5), 769–794. 

Hookway, James. (2017). “Curfews, Obligatory Prayers, Whippings: Hard-Line Islam Emerges in Indonesia.” The Wallstreet Journal. September 13, 2017. https://www.wsj.com/articles/indonesia-once-a-model-of-moderate-islam-slides-toward-a-harder-line-1505311774 (accessed on April 29, 2021).

Kelemen, Barbara. (2021). “COVID-19 Fuels the Return of Islamism in Indonesia.” MEI. March 16, 2021. https://www.mei.edu/publications/covid-19-fuels-return-islamism-indonesia (accessed on April 30, 2021).

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Mietzner, Marcus. (2020b). “Rival populisms and the democratic crisis in Indonesia:        chauvinists, Islamists and technocrats.” Australian Journal of International Affairs. 74(4), 420-438, DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2020.1725426. 

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Fatima Spar and The Freedom Fries. Photo: Received from http://www.freedomfries.at

Singing protest in Vienna

While many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations, others worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake. This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past. Vienna continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance.

By Heidi Hart

Recently a dangerous package arrived in the post: a tango sent by a musician friend in Vienna who had found the sheet music at a flea market. “I’ve had absolutely no luck in finding anyone willing to take it here,” she wrote, noting the taboo around late 1930s music associated with the Nazi party. This orchestrated dance piece from 1938, titled “Mädi, nach dir hab’ ich Heimweh” (“Girl, I’m homesick for you”), also suggests the fraught word “Heimat” in the nationalistic sense of “homeland.” Because I work on antifascist music from that period, I found the music interesting as background, but also painful to hold in my hands. The composer, Horst Raszat, also contributed a song to a National Socialist anthology in 1939. 

Like the problematic figure of Wagner, blatantly antisemitic in the nineteenth century and beloved by Hitler in the twentieth, many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations. Others, like Hanns Eisler and others who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht, worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake (Hart, 2018).

This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past, however. Vienna, once one of the most modern and diverse cities in Europe, until the Nazi Anschluss and subsequent gutting of its Jewish population stripped much of its cultural richness away (Weyr, 2005), continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance. Protest music plays a large role in how these tensions are embodied and whose voices are heard. 

One response to xenophobic populism has been musical parody. In 2005, the FPÖ or Freedom Party in Austria campaigned with the slogan “Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden” (idiomatically translated as “Don’t let Vienna turn into Istanbul”), based on a 1990s slogan expressing the same wish not to “turn into Chicago” (Demokratiezentrum Wien, 2008) after the rise of far-right ideology under Jörg Haider. In response to the “Istanbul” slogan, Turkish-Austrian jazz singer Fatima Spar and her band The Freedom Fries turned the words around as a song title: “Istanbul darf nicht Wien werden” (“Don’t let Istanbul turn into Vienna”).

The anti-xenophobic song begins with these stanzas, sung in Turkish and translated with intentionally lower-case, democratizing typescript on the band’s website:

             they are afraid

             that in the city’s heart

            we’ll soon raise a mosque

            and pull down their church

     

           that in masses we will settle

           and run down their flats

          with our mercedes

          parked neatly at our doorsteps

The music works in a push-pull dynamic of parodic Viennese waltz and taverna music, a blend of styles that reflects crisscrossing cultures southeast of Vienna. Spar sings in quick, faux-panicky patter against this contrast of 3/4 and 4/4 time. Her voice slows and becomes almost mournful at the end, when she sings: “you let us row the boat/ yet our faces meet stone-cold/ “i say”, they say/ ‘that turkish girl sure is one of us.’” 

In another vein, Isabel Frey, a young Yiddish singer who has found herself as uncomfortable with Zionist politics as with European populism, adapted an old protest song in 2019 that led to her own unexpected political career. After the “Ibiza Affair” became public in May of that year, linking Freedom Party officials with corruption and election support from the Russian elite, the Austrian coalition imploded. Frey responded with a song, outside the Chancellor’s residence “atop a white van with her guitar surrounded by speakers and protesters” (Baur, 2021).  

The song “Daloy Politsey,” or “Down with the Police” was sung by Jewish protesters against the Tsarist regime in early twentieth-century Russia. Frey, who had already been learning Yiddish songs as part of contemporary Diaspora culture, added a German verse and chorus, and her adaptation became an anthem for the anti-populist Thursday demonstrations in Vienna (listen to it here). When she sang the song the day after the Ibiza Affair had been made public, she added the line, “heute ist Straches letzter tag” (“today is [Heinz-Christian] Strache’s last day”), referring to the Vice Chancellor and head of the Freedom Party (Hillis, 2020).

The Austrian LINKS party grew out of the Thursday demonstrations, and party member Frey won a city council seat in the recent election, representing the historically Jewish Leopoldstadt community. As part of her agenda, Frey presses for a more thorough reckoning with history and exclusionary politics in Austria. She has explained, “It doesn’t work if you just talk about the Holocaust and then use that as an expression of Austrian national identity, and use it to indirectly exclude other people from the national community, like refugees and Muslims” (Baur, 2021). With this year’s protests in Vienna over Covid restrictions, often involving Freedom Party supporters (Reuters, 2021), she will have plenty of work ahead in that area as well. 

Adapting older protest music to meet current political crises is a practice with a long history. In 1949, American bass Paul Robeson, best known as a Black singer of spirituals, performed the Yiddish marching song “Zog Nit Keynmol” in Moscow. This expression of “solidarity with the Jewish people” in a “Holocaust-era Partisan song” (Kutzik, 2018) also intersected with the oppression of Blacks in the US (Rogaly, 2021). The performance led to both applause and boos in the USSR (listen to the recording here), where Jewish intellectuals were still facing persecution; Robeson’s support both for Jewish friends and for the USSR shows the complexity of anti-fascist music-making after the Second World War (Kutzik, 2018)

In today’s fraught political climate, older protest songs continue to be repurposed, from the Italian farmworkers’ “Bella Ciao” originally sung against Mussolini’s regime, and now sung in anti-authoritarian protests worldwide, to the “Marseillaise” appropriated on the right and reclaimed by the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) and Paris Opera workers in 2019 (Dorcadie, 2020). In the US, the familiar Woodie Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” is under new scrutiny, as its lyrics sound blatantly colonialist to Native peoples (Kesler, 2021). Twenty years ago, an adaptation by Mexican-American singer Lila Downs already included critique of the song’s assumptions, by speaking in the collective voice of immigrant farmworkers and then asking “When did you come to America?” in an accusing “white” voice (Downs, 2001)

Meanwhile, back in Vienna, the recent May Day demonstration occurred in the nexus of Covid fatigue and community concern over fair housing, especially for refugees (Vienna Online, 2021). Young organizers gave impassioned speeches in front of the famous opera house, with its own history of musical conservatism and recent resistance, in the form of an opera by Olga Neuwirth based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Ross, 2019). For all the ongoing anti-immigrant sentiment and resurging antisemitism in the city (Reuters, 2021), Vienna will continue to be an important site of protest. Though Austrian writer-of-conscience Thomas Bernhard, forced to sing Nazi marching songs as a child, lamented the “lethal soil” embedded in the beauty of cities like Salzburg, which “has always rejected those spirits it could not understand” (Bernhard, 2003: 100-101), spirited singers like Fatima Spar and Isabel Frey insist, today, on being present and being heard.  

References

Bernhard, Thomas. (2003). Gathering Evidence: A Memoir. Translated by David McLintock.  New York: Vintage.

Hart, Heidi. (2018). Hanns Eisler’s Art Songs: Arguing with Beauty. Rochester, NY: Camden House.

Rogaly, Ben. (2021). “Resisting racial nationalism and the depredations of capitalism.” Seminar presentation at the Department of Musicology, Lund University, April 27, 2021.

Weyr, Thomas. (2005). The Setting of the Pearl: Vienna Under Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during 74th Anniversary of Parachutist Infantry Battalion held at Military Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on November 23, 2019. Photo: Celso Pupo

Military and Populism: An Introduction

Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights. This commentary tries to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja M. Ali Saleem (*)

Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights.

This commentary seeks to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders. It also distinguishes between cases where the military supports populist leaders from those in which military leaders themselves become populist leaders.

The Role of Military in the Modern Nation-State

The contentious debate over whether war is part of human nature or the product of nurture continues. However, the link between power and the forces organized and trained to wield violence (i.e., the military) is ancient. As democracy becomes an ideal accepted by people worldwide, it is easy to forget that, for millennia, the military was the primary component for attaining and retaining power. The origins of almost all of the ancient and medieval empires can be traced to a single warrior (or a group of warriors). Most kings and emperors in the past spent more time learning how to fight than learning how to govern. The head of the military was either the king himself or a close confidant. Unsurprisingly, discussion and analysis of war and military force form a large part of the established literature and religious books. Both The Iliad and Mahabharata are war epics, and the Old Testament devotes much space to the Israelites’ wars with their enemies. Almost all heroes of antiquity were warriors, from Achilles and Arjuna, through to Karna and David.

Even today, the military cannot be separated from statecraft, public policy, and governance. The unbelievable misery suffered by the soldiers during the global conflicts of the twentieth century and the gross iniquity and carnage of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not resulted in lesser admiration for the military. Violence and turmoil across the world stare us in the face as an undeniable reality that calls for the maintenance and use of military force.

Militaries also play a critical role during emergencies. As an organized force, ready to be deployed at short notice, the military has assisted governments during floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. The raging COVID-19 pandemic has again shown the utility of military forces, which have been deployed in many countries to enforce lockdowns, transport medical equipment and patients, assist in delivering vaccines, and much more besides.

Modern nation-states are obviously different from the kingdoms and empires of old. The key distinction is that the ancient and medieval empires lacked a national core. Although some scholars have argued that proto-nationalism was present in some of them, nationalism was absent in these empires. Imperial control over subjects and the governance required of the center was minimal compared with the nation-state. Emperors left peripheries largely to themselves or appointed feudal lords or regional hegemons to rule in their stead. Unsurprisingly, emperors had few responsibilities. They were not responsible for education, health, potable water, sewerage, or any of the modern public utilities that we have come to expect. Nation-states, in contrast, usually exert complete control over their territory and are generally thought responsible for providing basic amenities. However, the military’s primary role has changed little from ancient times —namely, to defend the territory from internal and external enemies using instruments of violence.

Modern nation-states can be divided into two major categories—democracies and non-democracies. Various constitutional and legal bounds are either absent, defined, or violated depending on whether a nation-state is democratic or not. These variations determine the interaction between the military and the rulers. In non-democracies, the role of the military is generally not clearly demarcated or regulated. Constitutions or laws are usually absent, and if they are present, they give the ruler broad leeway. For example, the basic law of Saudi Arabia barely mentions (just two articles) the armed forces. In addition to the legal ambit, multiple and varied factors—such as the history of conflict, threat perception, governance, militarism, and public opinion regarding the role of the military and rulers—determine the checks and balances on the military.

In a state where the constitution is respected, there is usually a consensus within the political domain as well as in society at large to respect the clear constitutional role of the armed forces and its relationship with the state apparatus. This enables the civilian state apparatus to form a well-defined working relationship with the military, with the parliament and civilian leaders responsible for governance and security matters. The constitutional arrangements and laws also ensure that both civilians and the military have a mutually agreed framework to collaborate and cooperate for national security in a synergistic manner. In addition to the constitutional definitions, the power of the parliament to determine the budget also gives the civilian rulers a fair advantage as they can decide and limit the military’s size and activities. Lastly, public perception regarding the military’s defined role and its efficacy vis-à-vis its civilian counterparts is crucial to ensure the military remains subservient. Like the civilian bureaucracy, the country’s armed forces need to stay out of partisan politics and support all elected governments.

Thus, to ensure the apolitical nature of the national military, a country requires strong democratic checks and balances. However, not all democracies are fully functional—some are highly susceptible to military intervention, where—for various reasons—the military is a partisan political force and generally plays an extra-constitutional role. Most of these states have suffered military coups and subsequently martial law and even military governments. Unsurprisingly, once a coup is successful, it increases the probability of more coups in the future. Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar are examples of pro-coup states. South America was once a continent replete with pro-coup states and adventurist militaries but, during the last three decades, democracy has taken hold, and the armed forces have largely adhered to constitutional boundaries.

Populism

Populism, very broadly, refers to the idea that a small, corrupt elite is exploiting the moral majority. Besides this vertical dimension, there is also a horizontal dimension where the above-mentioned moral majority is also threatened by outsiders and traitorous insiders that are in cahoots with the corrupt elite. Populist leaders claim to represent this moral majority and condemn the financial and moral corruption of the elite. At the national level, populist leaders generally also add a temporal dimension to the populist idea. Thus, national history is divided into three parts: a glorious past, a vile and odious present, and a magnificent future. The populist leader then presents him or herself as the vehicle the nation can use to move from the execrable present to the promised nirvana.

While discussing the military’s relationship with populism, it is important to distinguish between two types of populism based on ideological preferences: left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Left-wing Populism

Before the 1950s, populism was a term primarily used by historians to describe two 19th century agrarian political movements—the People’s Party in the United States (nicknamed “Populists”) and the Russian Narodniks, which means populists in the Russian language. While these movements took place continents apart, they shared agrarian origins and common beliefs—namely, anti-capitalism, people’s rights, and anti-monopolism. Both stood opposed to industrial interests, which they saw as the driver of income and wealth inequality in their respective societies.

These left-wing populist movements cast the “elites” as those groups that illegitimately acquired and held onto economic power from “the people.” Economic power being the basis of all other types of power, it should therefore be returned to “the people” to restore balance in society. Their policies are closer to the concept of “populist-socialism” as coined by Crawford Young, which constituted of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism.

Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, where populist leaders such as Júan Peron in Argentina used a blend of charisma, ideology, strategy, and discourse to sway the masses. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, these leaders amassed a vast amount of public support. Many left-wing populist leaders also emerged in post-colonial Asia and Africa. They included multinational corporations and the Western governments as part of the international “elite” that has subjugated their “people.” Neo-colonialism was the strategy through which the former colonial powers continue to rule over Asian and African people. This added anti-globalization to the left-wing populist repertoire.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former US President Donald Trump met to discussed the betterment of the relations of India and the US at Heydrabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: Madhuram Paliwal

Right-wing Populism

At the opposite end of the spectrum is right-wing populism, which is currently undergoing a surge globally. As opposed to its left-wing counterpart, this variant is rooted in ideas of “the pure people,” religious “righteousness,” and ideas of right to a “sacred” or “native land.” “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to “protect” their culture and values from “the other.” A wide variety of individuals are “otherized.” For instance, in Europe, an emphasis on “Christian civilization” has seen Muslims as “outsiders” who are unable and unwilling to integrate. Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of the “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture. Former US President Donald Trump constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “the other.”

Beyond Europe and the West, populism has also found ground across the world in a diverse range of political landscapes. The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has deployed right-wing populist rhetoric based on the Hindu religion (Hindutva) to win two back-to-back national elections. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Imran Khan have used Islamist populism to gain and retain power in their respective countries, Turkey and Pakistan. In southeast Asia, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has embraced populist rhetoric to win people’s confidence.

There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. However, in coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges.

Military and Populism

The points of contention between populists and the military are primarily populism’s anti-capitalism, anti-science, and anti-war program. Populists are generally anti-capitalistic, which is problematic to the military as capitalists are enthusiastic about military expenditures and generally support wars. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a former five-star general, warned the Americans about the rise of the military-industrial complex. Populists are also against foreign interventions and wars and are generally ready to decrease defense expenditures to increase the budget for social programs, which is not acceptable to the military. Populists are also anti-science, making their alliance with the army difficult as nowadays the armed forces use the most sophisticated technologies available.

There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. Depending on their institutional interests, the military elite silently helps or thwarts populist leaders while remaining within the laws and rules in advanced democracies. The interests of the military generally find more acceptance in right-wing populism than left-wing populism. The idea of the nation being in danger from foreigners or traitors who are constantly conspiring against it supports authoritarianism and an increased role of law-enforcement agencies, including the military.

The military is also considered the most nationalistic and less corrupt part of the elite. The familiar populist refrain of the glorious past is usually based on the past military victories of the national core—namely, the majority ethnolinguistic or religious group. This refrain also helps otherizing minorities, which the right-wing considers part of the problem. The right-wing populists are ready to militarily deal with this “problem,” which has less representation in the military. Left-wing populism is generally pacifist and against war and using the military against minorities. One area where both right-wing and left-wing populists seem to agree is that military interventions in other countries should be limited or avoided altogether.

While populism is largely a civilian political dynamic, as discussed above, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can become embroiled. In coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges. They may include the military in the corrupt elite they are fighting against. Therefore, neutrality is usually not an option. The army either negotiates and then aligns itself with the populist leader or opposes and condemns the populist narrative as destabilizing and traitorous. A closer relationship between the military and populism occurs when the leader of the military junta ruling the country becomes a populist. The populist military leader condemns the previous ruling elite and presents themself as the nation’s savior.

The following section presents examples of the different scenarios discussed above.

The Military’s Support for Left-wing Populist Leaders

During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Getulio Vargas became the President of Brazil in 1930, and—during his long tenure as elected president and then dictator—he favored socialist policies and was supported by the Brazilian military. Under Vargas, policies such as nationalization of industry, the 40-hour workweek, the expansion of education, a minimum wage, and many others were adopted, and laws regulating banks, insurance companies, and other industries were passed. The Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution.

Gualberto Villarroel led a successful coup in Bolivia in the 1940s. He adopted socialist policies to gain a foothold with the masses. His reforms included expanding indigenous peoples’ rights, recognizing worker unions, launching a retirement pension scheme, labor reforms, and much more besides. The Bolivian military initially supported him but later abandoned him when he became unpopular.

Pakistani Military officials perform during the opening ceremony of Balochistan Sports Festival organized by Balochistan Government on March 22, 2016 in Quetta, Pakistan.

The Military’s Resistance to Left-wing Populist Leaders

In Pakistan, the populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) came to power on the back of a populist program of socialism and welfarism, combined with Bhutto’s personal charisma. He ended more than thirteen years of military rule that ended in ignominious defeat by India and subsequent division of the country, resulting in Bangladesh’s independence. Bhutto adopted socialist policies, such as nationalizing banks, industry, educational institutions, and land and labor reforms. Throughout his tenure, the military refused to accept him as the country’s leader and eventually dismissed his government and hanged him after an unfair trial.

Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, came to power using an anti-elitism rhetoric that targeted both the civilian and military elite. After the 1952 populist revolution, he carried out a wide range of reforms, including land distribution, nationalization of the largest tin companies on which the Bolivian economy relied, and universal suffrage for all adult citizens. He also disbanded the military and was replaced by workers and peasant militias led by men from his party. He was removed by a military coup in 1964.

Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force.

The Military’s Support for Right-wing Populist Leaders

Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force. One of the most famous right-wing populist leaders supported by the military was Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. He was elected president in 1965 but led a coup and imposed martial law, with the support of the military, in 1972. He remained in power until 1986 with the continued support of the military as he shared the spoils by increasing the defense budget, expanding military recruitment, boosting military industries, and placing military officers as heads of civilian organizations. The Catholic Church also supported Marcos during most of his rule as he protected the privileges of Catholicism as the majority religion.

Currently, in the Philippines, another right-wing populist supported by the military governs the country. President Rodrigo Duterte, a “strongman” populist leader, has been able to garner support with “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” and other social undesirables. Duterte’s action-oriented strategy to “crush” these undesirables has led him to use penal populism. This variant of populism is supported by the military, which Duterte has relied on heavily in his crackdown on those groups in the Philippines deemed a threat to good social order.

In Brazil, right-wing populism has also been supported by the military. After the election of Jair Bolsonaro —a right-wing populist leader and a retired military officer— there has been a growing trend of military presence in technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. According to one estimate, almost half of all cabinet seats, including those of President Bolsonaro and his vice president since 2019, Hamilton Mourão, have been occupied by retired military officers.

The Military’s Resistance to Right-wing Populist Leaders

One of the longest oppositions to right-wing populism by the military was seen in modern Turkey. From the 1950s to 2009, for more than five decades, the Kemalist military elite defended an aggressive secular nationalism against right-wing populous elected governments. The Kemalist military—supported by the judiciary, academia, and the media—kept right-wing governments on a short leash and imposed martial law on three occasions to thwart any attempts to challenge its control.

Another example of military opposing right-wing populist leader was in Egypt when President Mohamed Morsi was opposed by the Egyptian military and was deposed only one year after his inauguration. President Morsi was the only democratically elected leader in the history of Egypt and came into power after almost six decades of continuous rule by military officers. Still, he faced opposition by the military and was replaced by General Sisi in a coup.

Left-wing Populist Military Leaders

In rare instances, the military leaders go beyond their constitutional roles and assume power. Dictators, however, also require public support, so military leaders try to adopt policies that increase their popularity. Some embrace populism to legitimize their unconstitutional rule. In Argentina, Júan Peron, an army general, became the face of socialist populism. He was able to amass popular support by leading welfare and labor protection policies, combined with nationalization.

In Mexico, a similar pattern was observed when Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) came to power. His program led to significant economic strides and boosted people’s welfare by supporting the rights of women, indigenous groups, and rural communities. A similar course was taken by soldiers-turned-populist-politicians in Latin America and beyond, including President Manuel Odría of Peru (1950-56), Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (1956-70), Ben Bella in Algeria (1962-65), and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso (1983–87).

Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry took power in Sudan after leading a coup in 1969 and remained in control until 1985. He initially projected himself as a populist leader adopting socialist policies, such as land reforms and nationalization of banks and industry. He banned all political parties except his own, the Sudan Socialist Union.

Right-wing Populist Military Leaders

Right-wing coup leaders adopting populism is also quite common. Colonel Nimeiry started as a left-wing populist but became a right-wing populist at the sunset of his regime. In 1983, he introduced a campaign of Islamization across the country. Nimeiry justified his campaign by adopting populist rhetoric of going back to one’s roots and eliminating foreign colonial influence. This rhetoric was accompanied by populist measures such as emptying thousands of liquor bottles into the Nile, the prohibition of interest on loans, asking for bayah (the pledge of allegiance) from government officers, and declaring himself an Imam. Like other populists, he refused to acknowledge any divisions in the country and claimed frequent rebellions in South Sudan were driven by imperialist plots.

The Greek regime of the colonels in the late 1960s and early 1970s was another example of right-wing military leaders employing populism. The regime coined the slogan, “Greece for Christian Greeks,” and its leaders frequently talked about one Greek people and nation, Greece’s glorious past, and claimed it would restore the nation to its ancient grandeur. This obsession with race, heritage, and nation was combined with paranoia about foreigners and the use of religious imagery to bolster the military’s weak legitimacy.

Conclusion

Usually, ethnolinguistic or religious nationalism, conservatism, socialism, or Marxism are added to populism to develop a comprehensive political program. However, certain aspects of populism make it amenable – even attractive – to the military. Populism encourages the centralization of power as it exalts one people and extols one leader. Dissent and diversity are downplayed or ignored. The military, as an institution, is based on strict hierarchy, and the criminalization of dissent within is closer to populist politics than constitutional politics, which is based on the separation of powers. The anti-intellectualism and xenophobic rhetoric of populists are often also closer to the military’s thinking. The military—save for the most senior ranks—can also be anti-elite. Military officers, especially in lower ranks, may identify more with ordinary people than the ruling elite. Populists and the military may also agree on the importance of “getting the job done” instead of following legal or constitutional processes, which may cause delays.

Examples from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe demonstrate that populism is not a new phenomenon and that the military relationship with populism is largely dependent on context. Very broadly, it can be argued that the era of military leaders themselves becoming populist leaders is drawing to a close. Furthermore, one can see more affinity between right-wing populist leaders and the military than populists of the left because right-wing populists extol the military and are ready to increase defense budget in these times of fiscal constraint and austerity.


(*) RAJA M. ALI SALEEM (Ph.D.) is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than twenty years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.

Turkish TV series Ertugrul Ghazi (Dirilis: Ertugrul in Turkish and Resurrection: Ertugrul in English) is an international hit, but it has found unprecedented acclaim and fandom in Pakistan, where it is broadcast in the country’s national language (Urdu) by the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV).

Transnational Islamist Populism between Pakistan and Turkey: The Case of Dirilis – Ertugrul

The highly politicized, Ottomanist themes of Ertugrul Ghazi, a Turkish television drama, are a manifestation of Turkey’s desire to expand its cultural borders. The show depicts Turks as the protagonists dealing with contemporary political issues, “settling” accounts with their enemies as they steadfastly practise the faith of Islam. These ideals facilitates the construction of a transnational populist civilizational cultural identity which surpasses nationalism. The show and its themes have resonated with the Pakistani version of Islamist populism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

During Pakistan’s first reluctant Covid-19 lockdown, in the spring of 2020, the normally chaotic streets went quiet. The relative tranquillity of the outdoors was not replicated indoors. Thousands of Pakistanis, forced to stay home, were glued to their television screens and electronic devices, enthusiastically watching a Turkish TV series: Ertugrul Ghazi (Dirilis: Ertugrul in Turkish and Resurrection: Ertugrul in English) (Shaikh, 2020; Carney, 2018). The program is an international hit, but it has found unprecedented acclaim and fandom in Pakistan, where it is broadcast in the country’s national language (Urdu) by the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV). By fall 2020, the show’s Urdu YouTube channel—called TRT Ertugrul by PTV—had received 10 million subscribers; the show also became a regular feature of the “top ten shows” watched on Netflix in Pakistan (Bhutto, 2020The News, 2020)

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Islamist populist Prime Minister (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021aYilmaz & Shakil, 2021b), called the show a “gift” from Turkey that was a token of brotherly exchange between the two countries. He has highlighted the significance of the show for the “Muslim world” because it allows a break from the “Western” content and puts forth “our (the Muslim world’s)” perspectives (Haider, 2020). Khan feels that the medium of films should be used to teach the “aloof” and “West-inspired” younger generations about the Muslim world’s “glorious past,” “triumphs,” and “heroic figures,” so that the “western civilizational hegemony” is “broken” (Haider, 2020). As a counter to “third-hand culture,” Ertugrul Ghazi has gone beyond pop culture to seep into deep fissures with Pakistani society’s imagination and conception of Turkey (Banka, 2020)

The fictional multi-series drama is built around the character of Ertugrul, the father of Osman I (the founder of the Ottoman Empire) and follows Ertugrul’s adventures across Central Asia. The story is a genre of historical fiction that celebrates the “resurrection” of Muslim power in the region during the late 11th century. The series has achieved unprecedented viewership in Pakistan, where the citizens have always felt a close affinity or a sense of “brotherhood” towards Turkey.

Northern India and Pakistan have been heavily shaped by Turkic-Persian culture. Turkish cultural influences in the Indus region—present-day Pakistan—run deep. Five different dynasties hailing from the region of modern-day Turkey and Central Asia, cumulatively known as the Delhi Sultanate, ruled the Indus valley from 1000 to 1556 BC (Avari, 2016). The longstanding connection between the cultures is also visible in the Urdu language. The language was constructed by borrowed vocabulary from the dominant languages within India from the Medieval period (Shaban, 2015). Urdu’s foundational elements include not only Persian, Hindi, and Arabic influences but also Turkish, further proving the transfusion and integration of Turkic elements into the region’s culture (Shaban, 2015).

In contemporary history, the Muslims of South Asia were very deeply involved in efforts to sustain the Ottoman Empire as it reached its twilight during and post-World War I. The Muslims of United India held the Ottoman ruler as the caliph of the Muslim World, and the Ottomans wielded immense religious-cultural power in the region. Thousands of Muslims protested, petitioned, and even enlisted in the British army during WWI with the hopes of negotiating a secure fate for the Ottoman Empire. However, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) brought an end to these ambitions (Niemeijer, 1972)

During the 20th century, the modern-day nation-states of Turkey and Pakistan maintained cordial ties with one another. To show it supports Turkey—even on the most controversial issues—Pakistan is one of a handful of countries that do not recognize the legitimacy of the Armenian state and deny the Armenian Genocide (Korybko, 2020). Both countries have had numerous high-level state official visits from the other. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, and in particular post-2010, relations between the two countries have only intensified through bilateral trade, military exchanges, diplomatic support, and cultural integration supported by shows such as Ertugrul (Khetran, 2016; Singh & Hickman, 2013; Mushtaq, 2004).   

The large audience for the show, in a country already sympathetic to Turkey, makes it a highly useful devise for transmitting the religious populism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political party the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The show is a prime example of the AKP’s soft power, allowing the party to successfully transmit its narrative of “Islamist civilisationalism” (Yilmaz, 2021), rooted in glorification of the Turkic ethnicity and position as the guardians of the Sunni Muslim world, the show blurs the “distinctions between entertainment and official (state-sanctioned) history” (Smith, 2020Subramanian, 2020; Carney, 2018; Karataş, 2016).

The drama’s highly politicized themes of Ottomanism are a manifestation of Turkey’s desire to expand its cultural borders. The show depicts Turks as the protagonists dealing with contemporary political issues, “settling” accounts with their enemies as they steadfastly practise the faith of Islam (Sunni Islam) (Bhutto, 2020Emre-Çetin, 2014). These broadcasted ideals facilitate the construction of a transnational populist civilizational cultural identity, where nationalism is surpassed (Brubaker, 2017). This has resonated with the Pakistani version of Islamist populism (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2021). Khan’s ownership of Ertugrul Ghazi as “our” culture exemplifies this notion. 

The hallmark of populism is a dichotomous society, home of two homogeneous and antagonistic groups—“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2004). The show plays on this dichotomy, allowing Pakistani viewers to feel part of the Muslim ummah—a group that has been victimized by the whims and control of the “Western world”; throughout the show, Ertugrul is busy unmasking the nefarious plans of Crusaders, pagans, and internal traitors. The ummah is only salvaged from the brink of misery and oppression due to their strong Islamist ideals that are imbodied in a jihad of nafs (the inner self) and sword (enemies of Islam, both internal and external).   

Erdogan and his party have hooked the willing Pakistani audience, a population suffering a perpetual ontological crisis (Bhutto, 2020 & Shaikh, 2020). The vertical and horizontal divides (Taguieff, 1995) within Pakistan are also cemented through the show’s themes. The vertical dimension of Islamic populism divides the “ummah” versus the “others,” such as Western countries, Jews, Indians, Armenians, etc. While the horizontal dimension marks the ummah as the “true people”due to their celestial superiority (Islamism) against the “evil” or “godless” others. Civilizational populism is intertwined with faith within the drama series. Superseding plain nationalism, civilizationism—especially driven by populist actors—is a highly effective emotional instrument of division and can be used to galvanize popular support in the international arena.

Turkey has used its transnational civilizationism to not only expand its relations with Pakistan but also muster support during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. While Pakistan didn’t officially declare its military involvement in the conflict, troops supported the Turkey-backed army in Azerbaijan. The Pakistani government issued sympathetic statements of support for its Azerbaijani “brothers” (Korybko, 2020). Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan share a transnational relationship that makes them the ummah against the “infidels.”

On the domestic level, Ertugrul Ghazi has made Pakistani and Turkish cultures synonymous. This penetration of civilizational populism is cross-cutting. For now, markets are flooded with fan merchandise, including odd items such Halima Sultan hairpins and Ertugrul themed papads (a snack), with the show’s Turkish cast endorsing brands across Pakistan’s cities. However, there are clear signs of a cultural convergence that are beyond the show and have more permanent features. The long-term cultural ties feature not only telecasting more Islamized Turkish shows such as Yunus Emre[1] but also jointly produced television shows—for example, Lala Turki[2] (Rehman, 2021; Siddique, 2020). This show, a sequel to the show Kurulus: Osman, has been dubbed in Urdu by a YouTube channel and is being consumed with great zeal (The News, 2020). Retail brands are not just limiting themselves to the cast of Ertugrul Ghazi; rather, they are using slogans such as “uniting cultures” and “Muslim heritage” to sell their merchandise in a market where Turkishness is the new fad (Saleem, 2020)

A chowk (market area) has always been named the “Istanbul chowk,” but now its connotation has changed for the citizens of Pakistan. The name of Istanbul reminds them of the Hagia Sophia, that was just “reconquered” by the AKP government, when it was re-converted to a mosque (Yilmaz, 2020). Istanbul chowk now represents the land of the “true” and “fierce” Muslims, the land and progenies of Ertugrul Ghazi (the pious warrior Turk) who took on the world to defend his tribe and religion. The drama series has played a key role in solidifying transnational Islamist populism promulgated by the Erdogan regime. The show’s civilizationalism is now part of Pakistan’s collective narrative, identity, and psyche. 

References

Avari, B. (2016). Islamic Civilization in South Asia: A History of Muslim Power and Presence. Routledge: New York. (accessed on March 14, 2021). 

Brubaker, R. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40(8), 1191–1226. 

Carney, J. (2018.) “Resur(e)recting a Spectacular Hero: Diriliş Ertuğrul, Necropolitics, and Popular Culture in Turkey.” Review of Middle East Studies. 52(1), 93-114. doi:10.1017/rms.2018.6. 

Khetran, S. Mir. (2016). “Economic Connectivity: Pakistan, China, West Asia and Central Asia.” Strategic Studies. 36(4), 61-76. doi:10.2307/48535974 

Mudde, C. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 541–563.

Mushtaq, Nadia. (2004). “Pak-Turkey Relations: Towards Cooperative Future.” Strategic Studies. 24(2), 89-116. doi:10.2307/45242527. 

Niemeijer, A. (1972.) The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924. Brill: The Hague. 

Shaban, Abdul. (2015). “Urdu and Urdu Medium Schools in Maharashtra.” Economic and Political Weekly. 50(29), 46-51. doi:10.2307/24482034. 

Singh, Chaitram & Hickman, John. (2013). “Soldiers as Savior of the State: The Cases of Turkey and Pakistan Contrasted.” Journal of Third World Studies. 30(1), 39-54, doi:10.2307/45198798. 

Taguieff, P. (1995). “Political Science Confronts Populism: From a Conceptual Mirage to a Real Problem.” Telos. 103, 9–43. Doi: 10.3817/0395103009. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the Desired Citizens: State, Islam and Ideology in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 


[1] The show is based on the life of the 13th century Sufi mystic. It emphasizes the universal components and yardsticks of Muslimhood. 

[2] Abdur Rahman Peshawari (a South Asian Muslim) had gathered funds and men to aid the flailing Ottoman Empire. Lala Peshawari, as he was known at the time, then set off on a ship; upon reaching Turkey, he fought two battles as part of the Ottoman army. He was killed in a battle and thus is revered as a “Ghazi.” The show will be based off this journey to the Ottoman Empire and his sacrifices for the caliphate. 

Pollution

Whose Anthropocene? Climate Grief and Climate Justice

This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result. 

By Heidi Hart

If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?

The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.”  Sarah Jaquette Ray (2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.  

This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.

Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish (2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12)

Superkilen public space in immigrant neighborhood in Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it. 

Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future.  As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.

Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well?  Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that. 

We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute. 

Assistens Kirkegård (Lost Species Walk), Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89).  We want to learn what we are missing. 

Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24)

If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine): 

Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up

long-concentrated plankton. Humans

consuming a million summers a day. 

Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams. 


References

Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Pope Francis warm welcomed by the people of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, during his visit in Erbil on March 7, 2021.

The Pastoral Populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani

The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 

By Lydia Khalil*

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation. 

 

Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out  –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.  

The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”   

Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism

To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.  

In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.

Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism

Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition. 

In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence. 

Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq. 

Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that  stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.  

Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion

The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.  

In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.   

Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.

In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”

Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game

In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’  that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.  

Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.  

Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 


(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.

Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen rallied during the meeting for the celebration of May 1, 2011 in Paris, France. Photo: Frederic Legrand

Right-wing Populism in the Swedish, Greek, and French News Media

At a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented findings from an international research project. Their findings warn  journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.

By Gabriela de Oliveira Carneiro 

At a virtual meeting of the European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented data and findings from the international research project entitled Right-wing Populism in the News Media: A Cross-Cultural Study of Journalist Practices and News Discourse funded by the Swedish Research Council. 

The main research question centred on the challenge facing journalists as they try to balance disparate concerns while reporting on scandalous speech by right-wing populists (RWP). Based on a qualitative discourse-analytic approach, Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow examined key aspects of the discursive framing of undemocratic, racist, homophobic and otherwise scandalous speech by right-wing populists in European news reports, collected between 2014 and 2018. The issue is how these frameworks can contribute to the processes of normalizing populist discourse and agendas.

The authors presented case studies from current, ethically problematic speeches by radical right-wing politicians and their mediated representations in print, online, and broadcast news media from Sweden, Greece, and France. The main analytical aspects in the news were: blaming the actors and/or political parties responsible for the scandals; journalistic evaluation through the language constructed in the news (explicit/implicit); and aspects of the foregrounding and backgrounding—that is, was more emphasis placed on the conflict itself or on its moral content.

The Swedish case, presented by Marianna Patrona, shows the press reaction to a November 26, 2017 speech by local politician Martim Strid (of the Sweden Democrats – SD), in which Strid railed against Muslims. According to Patrona, the Akktuelt News Group reported the controversial statement and journalistic commentary that framed the event as a clear moral transgression, comparing the content of Strid’s statement to the Nazis. Moreover, the selection of quotes condemning relevant political actors in headlines, news articles, reports and political commentaries reflects the important work of journalistic evaluation. For Patrona, media coverage helped to highlight the unequivocal culpability of a politician, while highlighting the broader values of the SD. This served as an opportunity for the SD to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-democratic views and the discursive inclusion of the party in a political culture of democratic and legitimate debate.

Patrona also analysed an incident from Greece: reporting on a homophobic speech made by Konstantinos Katisics, MP of ANEL and member of SYRYZA-ANEL in 2018. During a parliamentary debate over a bill that would allow same-sex couples to become foster parents, Katisics equated homosexuality with pedophilia: “Love of pedophilia is a crime, why should homosexuality be any different?” The MP’s declaration provoked widespread public outcry. He was called to account on radio and television. On the “Good Morning Greece” (ATN1 channel) program, the MP was called to explain himself; from the beginning, the hosts framed the interview controversy of legitimacy: “We have many phone calls that agree and many phone calls that disagree.” Throughout the interview, Patrona’s analysis shows that the focus was on the conflicting styles between Katisics and his peers—and not on the homophobic content. The politician was given many opportunities on several occasions to reinterpret his homophobic statement and thus dismissing all charges.

Joanna Thornborrow presented about a scandalous comment overheard by a journalist in France. During a pre-campaign cocktail hour in Marseille, ahead of parliamentary elections in May 2014, the former leader of the National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen was overheard talking with other party members about the population explosion in Africa. At the time, he said that France was “submerged” by immigration and that “Monsignor Ebola can sort that out in three months.” According to Thornborrow, the racist and anti-democratic statement was presented in a neutral manner by journalists in most of the subsequent stories, including two major national daily headlines which ran it as breaking news. It was reproduced in direct quotes or speech attributed to the politician, with no journalistic evaluation of the content. Like Katisics’s case in Greece, when JM Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, was asked about the topic at Des Paroles et des Actes, interviewers allowed her to blame the press (…) “who have totally taken his words out of context …”

Following Thornborrow, neutral media positioning on JM Le Pen’s racist comment contributes to marginalize the FN; allows the party’s leadership, Marine Le Pen, to blame the media for being biased towards the party and against “the French people”; and enables the reinterpretation of racist discourse and its dissemination across digital media, rousing FN supporters.

Based on the evidence from the three case studies, the researchers concluded that there are three journalistic practices with regards to normalizing RWP speech: 1) neutral and non-evaluative reporting; 2) the media’s propensity to frame extremist discourse as a conflict narrative, without considering the ethical limits of racist and homophobic anti-democratic discourse; 3) the “scandalous” framing, giving free publicity to right-wing populist leaders without any ethical criticism of their undemocratic stances.

Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow’s findings warn academics and journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.

Man buying The Guardian newspaper from press kiosk with Braking news from Theresa May British Prime Minister "Brexit delayed two years" in Paris on September 25, 2017.

The Populist Hype and “the Mainstreaming of the Far Right”

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon’s findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism: It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors; euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism; and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence.

By Erdem Kaya

The scholars Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a remarkable presentation on the unintended adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 6, 2021. Brown and Mondon presented their findings in their recently published article “Populism, the media, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study” calling for a “more critical and careful use” of populism both as a descriptive term and a social science concept. 

Brown and Mondon use a mixed-method discursive analysis based on both quantitative data and qualitative insights and take The Guardian’s investigative series on populism from November 20, 2018 to November 20, 2019 as the case study. The authors explore how populism has been hyped in elite discourse and illustrate how this constructed hype has informed the respective public discourse. Their findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism. It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors. It also euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism, and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence. 

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a presentation on the adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 6, 2021.

Brown and Mondon’s study exposes how the centrist parties abuse the “populist” threat and how their targeting the “populist” actors further disguises the subtle racism and xenophobia in the status quo. The study shows how the indiscriminate use of the concept of populism serves the far right’s search for a destigmatized image as well as how the editorial mistakes in media enable the far-right politicians to platform their ideas. The authors highlight that the populist hype emanated from such pervasive and uncritical uses of the term facilitates the legitimization and mainstreaming of the far-right figures and ideas. They do not argue for “the complete withdrawal of the term” but, referring to Cas Mudde’s earlier warnings, suggest a more careful and critical use of it. 

Brown and Mondon’s study draws attention to the implications of the hype in using the populist epithet for the far right. The populist hype stands for an evident causal factor in their research. However, the way and the context in which they measure the implications of this hype over the legitimization and the mainstreaming of the far right require further attention. Considering the exponential growth of the usage of the term in the last half-century and the overall rightward shift in politics in the West during the last thirty years, and against the backdrop of the ramped-up tension between global capitalism and national politics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, determining the causality may not be a straightforward task. 

As the authors put it, the lack of care in the pervasive usage of the term produces palatable depictions of racist ideas and turns populism into a weasel word. However, the increased frequency, the vagueness and the pervasiveness of the term are not necessarily tantamount to a legitimizing effect. Or, the fact that The Guardian’s investigative series do not represent an objective coverage of a political phenomenon and the argument that the series cannot be taken as independent of the power structures that influence the development of the public discourse on populism are not sufficient grounds to establish the causation for the legitimacy and mainstreaming of the far right.  

Likewise, although the association of populism with illiberalism deflects attention away from “populism” and implicit racism within the centrist political structures, it may not generate a legitimizing or mainstreaming effect. Depending on the context, associating populism with illiberalism or placing the populist actors as outside liberal democracy may strengthen the centre but can also raise the expected awareness. So, the unintended consequences of using the concept of populism may not entirely negate the intended consequences. For especially the cases in which the populist parties in power, speaking truth to power and naming the populist demagogue -without attributing harmlessness to the far-right ideas- are not worthless.  

As Brown and Mondon point out, the populist hype is not all about emitting “a positive or ambiguous light” on the concept of populism. They do not treat the full coverage of populism in The Guardian as problematic. They also do not deny that there is a “generally negative slant” in the overall usage of the term. So, whether the extensive use of the term populism or the lack of care in the use of the term facilitates the move rightwards in European politics and the mainstreaming of the far right is disputable. Populism, as a political style or a floating signifier, still has a negative connotation, while far-right political actors tend to stick with populist rhetoric to expand their voting base. But, even though the far-right groups receive undue coverage, the influence of the coverage of populism in totality might even be the other way around. 

Brown and Mondon’s study avoids selection bias to a large extent by adopting The Guardian—a left-liberal leaning newspaper—as its case study. However, further research is needed to establish a sound causal connection between the populist hype in elite discourse and the mainstreaming of the far right. Discourses do constitute social realities but theorizing the implications of the populist hype on the mainstreaming of the far right may require collecting longitudinal data over the course of different time frames as well as exploring cross-national variation.

Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı

Does Erdogan offer a populist blueprint for Modi and Netanyahu?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These op-eds are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer 

Taking the study of populism beyond the familiar geographies of Europe and the Americas, my series of commentaries for the ECPS explores how right-wing populism undermines fragile democracies, particularly in Turkey, India and Israel—countries that are all marked by deep social, ethnonational and religious divisions. This final commentary argues that, despite differences in size, history and institutional culture, all three democracies exhibit a remarkably consistent populist strategy. 

What distinguishes Turkey, India and Israel from polarised societies in the European Union and the Americas is each countries’ dangerous, conflict-ridden neighbourhood, which makes threats to the nation an ever-present reality. Fear of conflict nurtures the populist strategies employed by each country’s leader. Military interventions in neighbouring countries, such as Erdogan’s ongoing campaigns in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Modi’s strikes on Pakistan in 2019 and Israel’s confrontations with Palestinians in Gaza serve to rally nationalist sentiment in ways that make membership of- and exclusion from the “people” morally salient. All three countries deny the national aspirations of a substantial minority – the Kurds in Turkey, Kashmiris in India and Palestinians in Israel – and threatens to conflate rights-demanding minorities with terrorists. 

While the relationship between populism and democracy remains disputed[1], populism’s antidemocratic potential is notable across the countries examined in this series. In fact, the populist playbook employed by each leader is comparable, with Erdogan offering a broad blueprint for the measures employed by Modi and Netanyahu. 

The right-wing populist strategies used by Erdogan, Modi and Netanyahu have three pillars: First, their neoliberal economic policies break from early conceptualizations of populism as advocating economic equality. Second, their conflation of nationalism, patriotism and religion allows leaders to address issues of belonging within the national community and to sow divisions between “us” and “them.” Third, the undermining of independent news media has emboldened each leader’s attack on democratic institutions. 

This common populist playbook is neither statist nor unabashedly free market. Though each leader’s policies differ in the types of intervention each leader is willing to make in the national economy, each leader undermined state institutions, preferring to bolster growth through the private sector. All three replaced social and welfare services available to all citizens with benefits that specifically target the “people”, thus, undermining the liberal citizen-state relationship. Membership of an exclusively defined “people” becomes preconditions for access, thereby nurturing unmediated relationships between the leader and the “people” outside of formal state structures. The resulting relationships of dependency allow the populist leader to conflate the government with the state. 

Erdogan’s justification of his policies concerning an Islamic mandate, Modi’s embrace of Hindutva and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision.

Unlike former US President Trump and populists across Central and Eastern Europe, Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu are not primarily resisting social changs like those attributed to large-scale, irregular migration. Although refugees have recently become an important political issue in all three countries, the developments analysed in this series precede the emergence of irregular migration as in issue on the national stage and shape how this issue is perceived in each country—namely, in sectarian, ethnoreligious terms. 

Instead, each leader studied in this series attempts to homogenize an intrinsically heterogeneous society by mobilizing one authentic, ethno-religiously conceived “people.” By infusing definitions of “the people” with pre-existing sectarian conflicts Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu undercut minority rights and liberal democratic values. They also jeopardize relatively stable, if reluctant, compromises between the ethnic and religious groups in each state by seeking to exclude their political opponents from the national political community.

Each leader’s adversarial relationship with the fourth estate corresponds with wider trends in twentieth- and twenty-first-century populism, which span Donald Trump’s allegation of “fake news” and the Alternative for Germany’s invocation of the Lügenpresse (lying-news-media). The cultivation by Erdogan and Netanyahu of their own loyalist media and Modi and Netanyahu’s use of state resources to support their favourite news outlets suggest that populists in power are not opposed to institutions per se provided that the institutions in question are their own. 

The similarities between these three leaders have not escaped local critics: Netanyahu’s war on democratic institutions led his political opponents to warn of his “Erdoganisation” (Ahval, May 25, 2019), while the revocation of the special status of the region of Jammu and Kashmir, prompted commentators to decry the “Israelification” of India (Middle East Monitor, December 24, 2019). Our analysis supports such claims.

In short, this series argues that Turkey, India and Israel signify different stages on the slippery slope between fragile democracies and authoritarianism. Turkey appears furthest down this path of democratic decay. While Erdogan has gradually stripped Turkey of all meaningful democratic choice, democracy in India remains free- though not fair- despite the severe erosion of minority rights. In Israel, fiercely contested elections and Netanyahu’s struggles with the Supreme Court suggest that he has not yet monopolized Israeli democracy. Our concern for all three countries is not the descent to absolute dictatorship, but rather a rescission to formal democracy, where elections take place but clientelism, incitement against minorities and assaults on democratic institutions skew the political playing field so as to deprive voters of a say in national politics.


[1] Compare Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens. (2007). “Populism Versus Democracy.” Political Studies. 55, no. 2: 405–424. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00657.x. with Laclau, Ernesto. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Secretary of Northern League Matteo Salvini and PVV leader Geert Wilders, after the closing press conference of the first ENF Congress at the MiCo Center in Milano on January 29, 2016. Photo: Marco Aprile

Populist International (II) – Geert Wilders, an Agent of Anti-Islam Populist International Alliance

Geert Wilders’ populism is based on Islamophobia. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. 

By Mustafa Demir & Omer Shener 

Looking through the lens of global populism, the relationship between the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders and like-minded political figures in the Western world is striking. Wilders’ efforts to reach out to like-minded groups and leaders go beyond courtesy visits. Through such efforts, Wilders attempts to construct an international front built on the common ground of anti-Islamic ‘concerns’. These ‘concerns’ are overhyped, with the aim of constructing an international, if not a transnational, front to challenge the Western world’s long-standing liberal norms of:

“Wake up, Christians of Tennessee! Islam is at your gate! Do not make the mistake which Europe made. Do not allow Islam to gain a foothold here… My friends, fortunately, not all politicians are irresponsible. Here, in Tennessee, brave politicians want to pass legislation which gives the state the power to declare organizations as terrorist groups and allowing material supporters of terrorism to be prosecuted. I applaud them for that. They are true heroes.”

This is how the Netherlands’ right-wing populist Geert Wilders addressed a crowd gathered in Cornerstone Church in Tennessee in May 2011. If, as Arditi (2007) suggests, populism is ‘the awkward dinner guest’ who, after drinking far too much, asks ‘inappropriate questions’, then Wilders’ populist dinner table discourse has been all about hype, defamation, and demonization.

Five years later, in July 2016, Wilders was in the US again, this time having been invited to Cleveland by US Senator Bill Ketron to attend the Republican National Convention. Wilders was in a state about Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, expressing his excitement with the following words“I wish we had political leaders like this in the Netherlands who defend their own country… and forget the rest.”

In another gathering, Wilders addressed the crowd as followsIn America you see the same happening as in the Netherlands. The hard-working people, what they call the blue-collar workers here, no longer feel represented by the political elite. That people no longer want the policy of open borders, immigration and Islamization.”

On the other hand, his host, Senator Ketron, responded to Wilders’ critics and ‘justified’ extending an invitation to Wilders by saying: “He just wants to take his country back like Mr. Trump and supporters want to take our country back. If you wanna come here and assimilate and live by our laws is his position as well as mine.” 

Wilders’ populist outreach is not limited to the US. In 2013, the Q Society of Australia, a far-right anti-Islamic organization, organized a speaking tour with Wilders. In Melbourne, amid protests, Wilders spoke to the rally, warning Australians about Islam as follows: “I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology… If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties… Yes, my friends, there is hope. But only if we outgrow our fears and dare speak the truth… The future freedom of Australia, the liberties of your children – they depend on you. The ANZAC spirit helped keep Europe free in the past; the ANZAC spirit will keep you free in the future. Be as brave as your fathers, and you will survive.

This very same society organized a conference titled “Islam and Liberty” in Melbourne in 2014. The purpose of the conference, according to the Q Society’s spokesperson, was to bring “together many people who are concerned about the march of Islam into many western democracies, and how it changes the laws and values of western democracies… You get segregation when you get Muslims coming in, because their core belief is that Muslims are better people than non-Muslims… We’re keen to have integrated societies, but we think it’s important to have integration, not segregation.”

On the first day of the conference, Wilders was welcomed in a pre-recorded message in which he cheered a new anti-Islam party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. He spoke as follows: “Like you, good people in Europe, America and Canada have had enough of politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare that all cultures are equal and who lack courage to speak the truth and say that Islam is the biggest threat to freedom today. You too will soon have the opportunity to turn the tide in Australia.”

In 2015, Wilders visited Australia again to launch the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), a new anti-Islamic right-wing populist party led by Debbie Robinson, former president of the Q Society in Australia. Speaking to the media in Perth, he urged Australians to be vigilant about migration from Muslim countries with the following words: “You will have millions of people coming to Australia, like we do in Europe, and you will not be able to handle it…You should be a sovereign country that closes your borders to those kinds of immigrants.”

Praising the ALA and the potential ‘protector role’ it will play for Australia, Wilders told the media: “If you read their manifesto it is clear that they are the freedom fighters of Australia… They have none of the political correctness that so many of the leaders in the world have today… and [they want] Australia to stand firm and stay Australian without the appeasement and giving in to multiculturalism, I think it will have a lot of support.”

Deciphering Wilders’ points made during the press conference, Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian newspaper explains that: “‘Those kinds of immigrants’ are Muslims. Opposing Islam is the central tenet of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has been leading the polls in the Netherlands since August. It is also the key policy of the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), the new party that Wilders flew to Australia to launch.”

Wilders’ populist appeal is, of course, not limited to Australia. He is actively engaged in the politics of European countries and has been forging closer ties with like-minded populists across the globe. He does not shy away from showing up at right-wing populist rallies all over the Western world. In March 2015, Wilders was invited to a gathering of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) organized by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and addressed the rally with similar anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

To recap, Wilders’ populism is based on an Islamophobic worldview. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. Returning to our earlier discussion of populism as ‘the awkward dinner guest’, despite the discomfort, this gauche visitor can, in fact, help uncover underlying problems in society (Moffitt, 2010).

Populism can be a positive force, one that demonstrates the shortcomings of the system and challenges the status quo. However, it can also hinder the proper functioning of the democratic system if it violates the principles of democracy and human rights. In the same way, populism can also be a force for good if it can ‘identify otherwise overlooked political problems’ and become the voice of minorities and ‘marginalized groups’ (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). However, as discussed above, Wilders’ rhetoric does the opposite: it turns minorities and marginalized groups into scapegoats.

References

Arditi, Benjamin. (2007). Politics on the Edge of Liberalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gidron, Noam & Bonikowski, Bart. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. Working Paper Series, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2010). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Populism as the Awkward Dinner Guest of Democracy.” Connected Globe, Conflicting Worlds: Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Melbourne.